University of Rochester

Teachers-to-Be Realize How Schools Can Treat Students Unequally

December 16, 2005

Using autobiography as a tool, seven students at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development applied their personal stories to understand more fully the dynamics of class, race, gender, and disability in education.

Their combined efforts with David Hursh, associate professor of teaching and curriculum at the University of Rochester's Warner School, earned them an invitation to the American Educational Research Association annual conference in spring 2006.

"It's unusual for master's students to present papers in this setting," said Hursh about the opportunity from the international organization that advances educational research. The finished paper grew from his request for volunteers in a graduate course, titled Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in American Education, to collaborate on a new approach to course assignments. Those students participated fully in the class readings and discussions, but also read each other's essays, talked and wrote about what they learned, and produced a group paper at the end of the spring 2005 semester.

The individual essays resulted in a compelling cross section of stories from students who grew up and attended schools in urban, suburban, and rural America. "We do not fit into expected categories," they wrote in their paper, "but are complicated and complex individuals who have experienced education differently."

The participating graduate students included Joe Henderson, William Huynh, Shannon Mahar, Honora Mosman, and Laura Waterstripe, along with University of Rochester undergraduate Gregory Hart, and Warner doctoral student Jessica Cuculick. (Another student used a pseudonym during the project, making clear the sensitive nature of writing an autobiography that others will read.)

Mosman, who attended public schools in the Rochester area, found that through her autobiography "I realized that one of the common agendas of public schools is not to give a common education to all, and this startled me. We are indoctrinated with the idea that if we try hard enough, we will 'achieve,' and yet our school structures and curricula imply that some of us are not expected—or encouraged—to 'achieve.' "

Hursh, one of the paper's authors, said the final paper showed how effectively the students used autobiography to deepen their connection with the core issues in the course. "We analyzed how our own identities and experiences reflect a complex intersection of race, class, gender, and disability that vary by place and time. We also gained a better understanding of the significance of social and cultural capital in students' academic success, and the way in which the structures and practices in schools privilege some students over others."

Their paper, titled "Examining the Past, Imagining the Future: Using Autobiography to Examine Class, Race, Gender and Dis/ability Inequalities in Education," was first presented last July at a conference on working-class academics at Ithaca College. Several of the student authors are planning to raise funds for their trip to the convention in San Francisco in April.